AX HORN LOUDSPEAKERS

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FRED DAVIES … A SOUND OBSESSION.

Fred Davies with the AxJet loudspeaker was born in the year of the water dragon … 1952, in South Africa. My dad was a civil engineer and worked in southern and central Africa after the war. My first visit to Britain was at the age of two and a half. At the age of three, I was on a ship heading for Trinidad in the Caribbean and these are my first memories. Six months later I was on a plane with my mother heading for Minneapolis in the USA where her sister lived. My father joined us and he worked for the architects Elerbe in St. Paul. I went to kindergarten and first grade there. I have abiding childhood memories of visits to Lake Superior (little did I know that Bob Dylan was growing up there too!) and Canada. The most memorable event was a camping trip with my parents when I was six in a classic old Studebaker from Minnesota, right across to Seattle in Washington state (little did I know that Jimi was growing up there too!). I remain enchanted with mountains and forests and utterly awed by the scale of the prairies and the Rockies.

Just as I became seven my folks had become a little disillusioned with the introspective nature of mid-west USA, so we headed off to the UK. First by Greyhound to New York, (little did I know that Paul Simon was growing up there too!) where I witnessed St. Patrick’s Day, then we boarded the Queen Elisabeth and sailed to Southampton. Writing it now it seems like a distant age but it still feels very real. Arrival in late March to a grey and rainy England was a shock but the welcome to the little terraced house of a great aunt, with its cosy coal fire and tea and biscuits, was a delight. My dad got work as site agent in Croydon, and I proceeded through the education system, passing the eleven plus to Trinity Whitgift. We had moved house a couple of times and I had a comfortable suburban upbringing.

I did not realise it then but I was at the dawn of golden age of music. We would have the radio on sometimes and listen to plays, Hancock’s half hour and the Goonshow but most music was of the old variety style with ballads by Frank Sinatra or Doris Day. Few people had a TV then, we went next door to see JFK’s funeral. The top ten was beginning to change and very different things began to surface. A neighbour’s older son played me the Shangrilas, The Tremolos and Jerry and the Pacemakers. The first single I bought was Shirley Bassey, Tonight promptly followed by Wipeout by the Safaris and The Martian Hop by the Randells (both of which I still carry in my record box!). This was followed by the seductive Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto. I was obviously responding to my cosmopolitan upbringing! Then something really remarkable happened, several things actually, I was able to buy a cheap Pye radiogram, the LP was invented or at least launched and the Beatles arrived. I bought or was given Beatles for Sale and I started to understand R&B.

My folks had had enough of suburbia by 1964 and decided on the dramatic move to running a guest house on the Welsh coast just south of Barmouth. I was in my element, Cader Idris to climb, the Irish Sea out to the west, lakes and rivers … heaven. The fly in the ointment was the school in Twywn, which was not good at the time. My mother appalled by this persuaded my dad to send me to a minor public school in Denbighshire. This was even worse! It was a prison sentence of sorts. When later asked about these sort of schools my attitude was that a term or so would be an education in survival for the child if the parents could bring themselves to be heartless enough to send them. I managed four terms and at last got back to Dolgellau, which was a much more modern ex-grammar comprehensive that made the O level syllabus tolerable. Apart from enthusiastically embracing the natural world around me and loathing school, this period was highlighted by an absolute immersion in the new realm of pop music. I discovered Dylan (Another Side was my second LP) and  then in a rush, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, The Animals, The Beachboys, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Simon and Garfunkel, Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Led Zeppelin, Donovan, the list just grows from there. I bought a little National Panasonic 3” reel to reel recorder and started making mix tapes.

Summers were spent sitting at the beach café playing all the new singles and eventually starting various bands. We used to play covers of the Doors and John Mayall blues standards with the odd soul number like Land of a Thousand Dances thrown in. This is where the sound equipment started to grip me. We used to practise, out of season, in Room 10 at our guest house. I had a few pals who regularly came down from the Midlands with their families and who had Hofner guitars and Vox AC30’s. My good mate Joe moved on from his acoustic to an electric guitar and we went and bought a Selmer Zodiac 50, I bought and old drum kit and started learning and driving my parents crazy, no doubt. JohnBates joined with an electric keyboard, today he is a Professor of Music! The remarkably talented Toby Boschell started rehearsing with us and seemed to be able to play anything and work out the chords and keys in moments. It quickly became clear that I was not drummer material and John took over duties while Toby played keyboard. I determined to become the Jim Morrison of the band and persuaded my dad to buy me a WEM 100 Watt Amp with 2 4×10 Column speakers and a Shure Unisphere B Microphone. I also saved up and got myself Hohner Super Echo Vamper harmonicas in all the keys …. Now I could do John Mayall or better yet Sonny Terry too!

We had a great summer with the band playing up and down the Cambrian coast from Harlech to Aberystwyth, impressing very young teenage girls and annoying a lot of adults by making such a huge noise that they kept coming to village halls to tell us to turn it down! At school, in preparation for an Eisteddfod performance, the headmaster was horrified by the amplified sound  …. “Can’t you just unplug those guitars?” he railed.  My moment of glory as a vocalist was short-lived however. The others were all very good musicians and although I played a mean blues harp, I clearly wasn’t a great singer. Another mate, Steve Foxhall had appeared on the scene and he looked like Steve Marriot from the Small Faces and had the attitude to match.

I was sacked from my own band! However I had an edge, as Chief Dan would say, I had the PA. So I started looking after the sound (and the lights, and the bookings).

I used to use a Watkins Copycat, proper tape delay, with the mike for vocals and we had a spring line reverb and valve tremolo on the Selmer. We used a Lesley speaker for the keyboard, The drums were un-amplified and the backline was just the guitar amps … have a look at The Beatles in Shea stadium on their first tour of the USA. That is the moment when PA started in earnest. The band kind of passed as they do and I still had the WEM 100 PA which we wanted to use for parties to play music through. So I wrote to WEM and asked them to if they could give me a diagram for a balance control between two turntables. They were most obliging and sent me a drawing. I got an old pair of turntables with Sonotone ceramic cartridges and installed them in a box with the balance pot in the middle. Turn to the left and the left deck played, turn to the right and the right deck played. This was the beginning of the Crystal Ship Disco which was and still is an excuse for me to choose the records at a party. I am sure I was not alone in this idea but we were pioneers in DJing and cross-fading. Later the decks became Goldrings with Shure cartridges but early on we were still in mono.

I first discovered Stereo and Hi-fi at the house of an older friend. Joe and I went round to visit because he had a great sound system. We sat and listened and were blown away. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew, Joan Baez, John Coltrane, the music was an experience in itself but we had never heard a sound like it, it felt “real” and there was a 3D image as though the musicians were there in the room. The system was a Thorens/SME/Shure  and Revox tape through Leak amps to  Wharfdale speakers. There was no looking back, once hi-fi had been encountered, nothing would be quite the same again. It took many years before I got my own Quad IIs (I still have them!) and Goodmans dual concentrics, and in the meantime it was the WEM for loud or the Dansette for room level. The band drifted apart and I played with another group of equally talented guys for a while. We called ourselves Stone Cottage and lived in the hills near Harlech for a summer. Dafydd Pierce was our guitarist then. He has played all over the world, arriving back here in Wales to run his recording studio near Carmarthen.

The next big thing was the development of the “Pop Festival”. The first one I went to was in 1968 at Woburn Abbey. We all hitch-hiked over to Bedfordshire and just slept in a blanket by a campfire. The festival itself was a daytime affair with a fenced area and lots of folding wooden seats. The sound was provided by 100 Volt line column speakers, around the perimeter. It was a bit odd and by today’s standards bizarre but the audience was small enough for a big backline to get across directly. It was rather like the Newport Jazz Festival in the USA, which I guess it was based on. It was pretty far sighted of the Duke of Bedford to put it on. We saw a lot of jazz and blues artist like Champion Jack Dupree, but most exciting was seeing John Mayall with Mick Taylor, Roger Chapman’s Family and incredibly a seminal performance by Jimi Hendrix. That was a musical turning point for me. After 8 schools I had had enough of formal education and dropped out in 1968, the year after the first summer of love, and went off to London to Notting Hill. Hippiedom beckoned and I had to “tune in, turn on, and drop out”!

I had a great time in London, I briefly lived in a flat in Sydney Street in Chelsea with Nick Mason (the drummer from Pink Floyd) in the flat above and Legs Larry Smith (the drummer from The Bonzo Dog DoDah Band) down in the basement. I lived in Baron’s Court, Holland Park and Westbourne Grove. I used to sell International Times around the West End and got to know The Drury Lane area and Soho well.  We went to see 2001 and Ezy Rider many times in various states of mind! We were also regulars at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street and I vividly remember Rory Gallagher’s Taste.

I worked for a gallery owner in Portabello Road and later in Highgate.

Although it was vibrant and exciting in the city, I still preferred country life and I returned to North Wales in 1969. That summer I set off and hitched down to the Isle of Wight to see the Moody Blues and Bob Dylan amongst many more! Festivals had got big and with long hair and a kaftan I found myself on the cover of the News of the World!

We were all a bit concerned about the statesman like age of Bob Dylan then … he was 28 … oh to be so young!

Around this time my parents had decided to give up running the guest house and we discussed moving. They finally decide on Poole in Dorset where I worked with my dad in various enterprises including managing a Welsh craft shop, a picture framing business and as an enduring skill learnt most areas of the construction business with the prime interest in plumbing and wiring. We did up several properties, his training set me up to make a living in construction and electrics for the rest of my life. In between I worked for a radio microphone company in Wareham for a while and learnt a lot about electronics. I developed a wide network of friends. We started doing parties with my PA and my good friend Idge and I played all sorts of venues and occasions. This led to us eventually taking our van with the sound system to the 1970 Isle of Wight festival where we stationed ourselves behind the main stage and found a venue, which was an inflatable dome. We played Psychedelic and West Coast rock for the next three days and met up with alternative bands like T2 and Hawkwind. Like many others, we gate-crashed the main arena to see The Who and the Doors and Free.

I had promised to meet a good friend at the front of the stage when Hendrix played.  This proved to be difficult as it was a press enclosure filled with boozy hacks and guarded by heavy bouncers. There was the bizarre sight of squads of regular policemen marching along from time to time too. In a surreal twist of fate I met some French guys. Jon’s advice had been that I should imbibe the  California Sunshine he had given me and we would definitely meet at the stage. One of the French girls came to our van and gave me a ticket for the press enclosure. Idge and his girlfriend waived at me through the psychedelic haze and sent me off to the VIP area, ticket in hand. It was like a passport, the gate opened and I found myself in a strange group of journalists in suits and the odd VIP. I felt like I had landed in an alien world. At that moment Jethro Tull had just finished and Ian Anderson departed the stage to be replaced by Ricky Farr who was berating the crowds for tearing down the fences and getting in for free. “Never again” he shouted hoarse with anger and worries. It made me feel rather paranoid especially when the top right corner of the stage caught fire! Eventually the smoke was smothered, a hot light I guess and I found Jon in full hippy regalia at the front of the stage.

Then at last Jimi came on and made the most wonderful music from his three Marshall stacks. People say that he had problems with the sound at first but the radio interference through his Univibe was really cool and felt otherworldly. He dedicated Foxy lady to several people including “that cat right there with the silver face”. I turned round to see Nick Turner of Hawkwind about five rows behind me with a beaming grin and his face completely silver. What a relief, somebody normal!  Later that year we were all devastated by Hendrix’s death. I have seen hundreds if not thousands of acts, many as good as Jimi, maybe more polished but absolutely nothing has ever plugged me into the universe like that. I have listened to all the recordings ( I have most of them) and it seems to me that Jimi had some direct line to the magic of music, a sort of Mozart of our times.

The festival thing seemed really important after that and we got to know a group of people led by Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill who were developing a festival at Worthy Farm in Pilton. As a group of friends we would drive up from Dorset at weekends to help out with the work prior to the 1971 first big Glastonbury Festival. We had been to the little event that Michael Eavis had put on in a field there in late 1970 and I could see why Andrew had been able to coerce Michael to rent the farm. Around that time I started to get into horn speaker designs having had several stereo systems. Before the 71 festival I met Tony Andrews playing his first system in the garden. It was to be used for the main stage but in the end wasn’t big enough and a Sound City column system was used. But Tony’s horns sounded great and they appeared at several events including Windsor great park. They were clearly destined for success and it was great to see them turn into TurboSound and more recently Funktion One. Of course that first big Glastonbury (small by current standards) was a real turning point for live music and led to all the major festivals today.

It was a great feeling to be involved then and many times over the years. Of course now it is even larger and burdened by more rules and regulations, but it is still a world leader.

Times moved on, I got married in 1972, had my daughter Arwen four years later and decided to start looking for a proper country

smallholding to share with my folks. We lived on the West Coast of Scotland for a while near Oban. I had discovered a series of articles published in Wireless World in 1974 by Professor Jack Dinsdale.

They covered the theory of horn loudspeaker design and gave some designs. It put into perspective the work of Rice and Kellog, Olsen, Paul Voigt and  Paul Klipsch. I had started to grasp the fundamentals of horn transmission and why those early pioneers had done so much with acoustics. By 1977 my dad had found a place back in Wales near Llandeilo and we moved down to start work on the property to make homes for my parents and for ourselves, with some great workshops in the outbuildings. There were many like minded people in the neighbourhood and amongst them I found an old acquaintance in Thomas Crimble from Hawkwind who had his recording studio nearby. I worked on getting our barn conversion done and lived for a while in a caravan next door. Many people thought I was barking, as my first move was to dig out the floor to house the folded bass horns that would emerge in 16 sq ft mouths under the windows. Eventually this would be the first pair of AXHORNS.

In 1980 my son was born and I worked in construction and struggled to survive the Thatcher recession. In 1986 we decide to launch the horns as build-in speakers. My dad died in 1987 and it was hard going for a few years to keep afloat, but gradually I developed AX Horn Loudspeakers and launched the first AXJET in 1994. It was a difficult time economically, Wales remained in recession and we moved home in 1995. It did however give us a push in a different and interesting direction. I had been approached, by Green Futures, for some very efficient speakers for their field at Glastonbury. I had used the AXJETS with Volt drivers for a small dance tent at the Harvest Fair in Wales and I got busy and made a complete system for the Pedal powered PA at Green futures with Mik Fielding of the Rainbow Dragon Stage and Bill Wright from Survival Power. We discussed the requirements and finished up making a 3-way 250W/channel horn loaded PA and two extra 100hz horns for the field, all powered by Bill’s quadricycles, with a huge battery pack. It was all quite gruelling but very satisfying especially when the stage signal was transmitted from by VHF to Danny Smithies’ Rinky Dink Mobile sound system, and the 100hz horns simultaneously. The front cover of that month’s Eternity dance magazine featured a picture of our 100hz horn up on the Blaggart Tower in the middle of the field.

1995 was a lovely year at Glastonbury and I had got involved with my children and their friends running dance tents and chill-outs at various festivals in Wales such as the Harvest Fair and the Spring Fair. It was a lot of hard work but great team building for alternative youngsters carrying on the spirit that we had started at the Isle of Wight and all those early festivals like Phun City, Bath and West and Glastonbury.

The dance scene had the advantage of being fairly egalitarian and we could put on young artistes and DJs. My son got deeply into lighting and would do (and still does) spectacular shows with moving lights and lasers. My daughter really went for UV décor and eventually stage production and DJing herself. After the demise of the Harvest Fair we had a list of acts booked who rather than cancel, we organised to put on at a local venue, the Queen’s Hall in Narberth. Which although small had a very go ahead manager in Declan Connolly who gave us leeway to stage monthly dance parties. We did a couple of years of SPACE there and it became legendary in Wales. Amongst the DJs we booked was Michael Dog of Megadog and I was delighted to become firm friends with him. We discussed doing the Rainbow Dragon Stage as a project with him doing the production with his contacts for artistes and we went ahead in 1997. I supplied the speakers, Mik Fielding did the amplification and engineering and I did the chill-out dome. It was a bit muddy but fun and we felt we could do more, so we had discussions with Greenpeace about doing a similar but larger show in their field for the next year.

Yes, we did 1998, it was like the Somme! I eventually succumbed to bronchitis, several lads had trench-foot, the whole team were wonderful and stoic. Young women in there with the boys loading trucks in their wellies and waterproofs. Getting towed out by tractors, and that was just at the finish! The whole weekend was ostensibly a disaster but we ran a marquee on pedal and alternative power almost round the clock with major acts like EatStatic and Steve Hillage’s System Seven, who with consummate professionalism managed to re-programme their sequencer and overcome the humidity to play way late in the early hours of the morning. The 1000 strong audience stood and wiggled in their wellies for the whole night and loved the show. I had a really nice dome for the chill-out and 4 AXJETS with 24 hour DJs and live acts. A flood ran through the venue, ditches were dug and hay bales delivered. Café Tango served veggy food endlessly, with a smile, and everyone loved it except for a few old guard greenies, who thought we had committed a heresy of some kind!

Glastonbury burned us out, for a while, it used to rely on a lot of personal input, unlike most conventional festivals. We did a few more seasons of SPACE and settled back on electrics again to all get qualified as NIC contractors. My marriage broke down and I was lucky to find a new partner and settle down with her. I now have my workshop and study looking west across the estuary towards Dylan Thomas’ famous boathouse. I was really happy to maintain a business with my son and son-in-law and we have all worked through good times and bad, as one does. During the last 6 years we have got involved in doing a big chill-out with Michael Dog at Solfest in Cumbria. The venue is called Dogs in Space and I have used various systems, making a 40hz bass stage for it and more recently using 4 of the new AXJETS on the stage and 2 old ones at the rear with another 2 outside. Michael does the production, I do all the PA and we employ an engineer for the mix. It gives me the opportunity to play old and new favourites for several hours and to hear my sound system at its peak with the live acts. Fred junior now lights the 2000 person dance marquee and his sister helps run that stage, when she is not playing there or in the chill-out.

So far so interesting, but what has excited me most this last couple of years is that with Arwen’s encouragement I have addressed the issue of developing the real product that has lain beneath the AXJET idea all these years. We went to Whittlebury hifi Show and I was astonished to find that it was little different from those Penta Hifi News shows that I went to in the 90’s to sell my AX Z-STANDS and AX BLACKTAK. Hifi seems to have stagnated whilst a younger audience has not discovered it, contenting themselves with MP3 players and earbuds or horribly loud PA systems. PA systems now seem to be sacrificing clarity and dynamics in favour of dispersion with line arrays and “so called” hifi is either boom-box car stereo or old man’s woofy walnut cabinets spiked to the laminated floor. On one hand this was disillusioning but on the other it presents a very exciting opportunity. With help and enthusiasm from many others, I have pursued the goal of making the new AXJET. The “afterburner” is something I have developed from phase plug loading in PA systems and I have returned to exponential horns from the tractrix, which Bruce Edgar extols, because they create a better wavefront. After trying many drivers I was overjoyed to find AER from Germany, one of the alternatives to Lowther that really works.

In 2011 I went to the Munich High End Show.

Having listened to Avant Garde, Accapella and Cessaro systems amongst others I was much reassured that the AXJETS are much better. So now I need to get them to people who need a high-end horn that will work with almost any source or power amp and will give enormous SPL whilst sounding really pure and clear. In a word they are fast… really fast. They can be rolled outside on their castors, are water resistant and teenager/techno/hiphop proof, but site them in your lounge, shut your eyes and your favourite string quartet is there in front of you! So that is where I am now, back in the music and becoming more and more discerning about recording and production values!

© AX HORN LOUDSPEAKERS 2018